By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published September 17, 2015
ATLANTA—With a large American flag suspended from fire trucks outside, the Archdiocese of Atlanta held its first Blue Mass for police officers, firefighters and other first responders at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta Sept. 11.
Public safety officials from Atlanta police and fire departments, including both chiefs, and suburban departments attended the Mass to remember the sacrifices of first responders during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the nation.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, joined by priests of the archdiocese, celebrated the Mass, which will become an annual event.
Honor guards from the Atlanta fire and police departments presented the colors. The occasional crackle of an emergency radio ceased as Natalye Howard, soloist for Atlanta Fire Rescue, sang the national anthem. Two memorial wreaths from the Atlanta police and fire departments were placed at the front of the church.
In his homily, Archbishop Gregory recalled the men and women who left their homes Sept. 11, 2001, expecting the routine but instead encountering the greatest act of violence to occur in the nation.
“They had begun their day with anticipating the ordinary and were then caught up in the extraordinary display of heroism and bravery,” said Archbishop Gregory.
The archbishop prayed that all nations be spared a repeat of such horror, and for those who serve and protect.
“We must also pray today for those who daily continue to provide protection and security for our community here in north Georgia,” he said.
Archbishop Gregory noted that the nation continues to experience an increase of violence in its streets and touched on the tension over force used by and directed at law enforcement.
“Everyday people—documented and undocumented alike—have been caught in the crossfire of violence unfortunately sometimes launched by those who were charged to protect them and to maintain security in the community,” he said. “Occasionally now even first responders and dedicated public servants have themselves become victims of senseless violence and hatred.”
Prayer for a greater bond of trust between all citizens and protectors is important, said the archbishop.
“Fourteen years ago, we were inspired by the courage and generosity of the first responders who then stood as beacons of hope for an entire nation and world,” said Archbishop Gregory. “We pray this day for the United States of America as we continue to confront not only the violence of foreign terror but the casual shredding of our fabric of unity and mutual respect.”
The Mass included a blessing of badges, and tolling of a bell in the choir loft in memory of those who died on Sept. 11, 2001. A total of 2,977 people were killed, including 343 New York firefighters and paramedics, 23 New York police officers, and 37 officers from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
As the archbishop blessed the badges with holy water, he asked God to grant protection for those who wear them and the ability to make “the right decisions and carry them out fairly.”
Bagpiper Tommy Burns of the Cobb County Police Department played “Amazing Grace.” Drivers along busy Peachtree Road slowed to view an impressive display of the American flag waving between the raised ladders of two Atlanta fire trucks.
Blue Mass to become annual tradition
Sgt. Curtis Clifton of the Dunwoody Police Department attended the Mass with his colleagues. Sgt. Clifton is a former student of Christ the King School and is now a parishioner of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Alpharetta.
“It’s great to see the community. It’s been a trying 14 months,” he said about recent national events involving law enforcement.
Sgt. Clifton began his career in public safety 13 years ago “to make a positive change.” He has served with Dunwoody’s force for more than six years.
“It’s an appropriate service and I’m proud to be a CTK parishioner to have the first Mass here,” said Chief Master Sgt. Chad Ronnebaum of the U.S. Air Force.
“That was inspiring,” said fellow cathedral parishioner Joan Merkle, who thanked as many of the first responders attending as possible.
Elementary school students at Christ the King School gathered outside the cathedral to give high fives to first responders leaving to report for duty.
The third-grade students of Annie Martucci, born after the 2001 attacks, have learned about it from their parents and teachers.
“To me, it means the day that two planes crashed into the twin towers,” said Lilah Kennedy, 9. Lilah also knows who came to help in the aftermath—the firefighters and police officers.
“Thank you. You’re wonderful!” shouted Lilah and her classmates to the first responders.
Prior to a reception for the first responders, Atlanta Fire Chief Joel G. Baker and Atlanta Police Chief George N. Turner thanked the organizers of the Blue Mass, set to become an annual event. Both chiefs saluted before the memorial wreaths from their respective departments during the tolling of the bell.
“There are personal defining moments in our lives … the day we are married, the birth of our first child, the first time someone says ‘you’re hired.’ Then, there are the collective defining moments—those that bind us together in our national consciousness,” said Baker.
No event is more profound than Sept. 11 as it is seared in our collective memory, he said.
Baker asked that the blessings of the “Great Comforter” pour down on those who lost loved ones and for a nation that lost a sense of invincibility. He also prayed that the memories of the September attacks not become an avenue for hatred that divides.
“May God bless the nation’s first responders today and every day and keep us safe as we labor to keep others safe,” Baker prayed.